26 Feb 2018

Fresh allegations at law firm: 'This should not be happening'

11:23 am on 26 February 2018

Revelations that law students and solicitors had sex on the boardroom table following an evening of heavy drinking at Russell McVeagh's Auckland office have put the leading law firm under public scrutiny again.

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The Facebook post described an evening where students and lawyers were drinking heavily. Photo: 123RF

The firm - which provides legal services to the government - is already in the spotlight over serious allegations levelled against two senior lawyers at its Wellington office two years ago.

A law lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology, Khylee Quince, said she had chosen to speak out about events "of some years ago" because she was incensed at Russell McVeagh's response to the sexual harassment and assault of young women by their staff "as if it was unusual".

In Facebook post, Ms Quince - who worked at the University of Auckland at the time - wrote that a student came to her office very upset.

"She said that after the seminar, the solicitors and students proceeded to drink the firm's bar dry and things got out of control - culminating in a number of staff having sex on the boardroom table with several students - in front of the other students.

"Following enquiries, I was satisfied there was no question as to consent, so I did not involve the police."

She and a senior colleague had a meeting with the chief executive and another senior associate.

"Their response was the students were adults - who needed to manage their own drinking; the firm bore no responsibility for them on their premises and frankly, this was none of our business.

"We also reported this to the university - and their response was similar, but included a claim that this was not their business because it occurred after hours and off university premises."

The whistleblower became ostracised and other young women involved became withdrawn, Ms Quince said.

A spokeswoman for the University of Auckland said the university was not aware of any complaint of this nature being made to the Dean of the Law School or the Vice-Chancellor in the past 10 years, and so was unable to comment.

Russell McVeagh declined an interview, but in a written statement, it said over the past 20 years there had been "a limited number of allegations of poor behaviour involving consensual sexual events including on its premises".

"Due to the consensual nature of the event, a formal complaint was never made.

"However, it was investigated fully and those involved were reprimanded.

"For a full formal investigation to be initiated we require a formal complaint to be made so that privacy laws are not breached.

"This has limited our ability to prove the alleged misconduct.

"When allegations of any sort have been made we have taken action. If proven, we have taken action appropriate to the severity of the misconduct. In some cases, this has resulted in termination of employment or a partner departing, regardless of their seniority."

The firm was committed to having "a culture of zero tolerance of any sexual harassment" and had commissioned an external review of the serious events of two years ago, which would include an examination of Russell McVeagh's culture and how it dealt with complaints.

The president of the Law Society, Kathryn Beck, said to claim the sex was consensual meant it was not a criminal matter, but that was a low bar.

"This should not be happening when you've got young law students coming in. It just sounds like it got completely out of control."

The vast majority of Russell McVeagh employees did a great job and looked after the staff, and the media scrutiny was "terrible" for them, she said.

However, it should be a wake-up call for the whole profession, she said.

"It is a lot of the men within the profession that need to be looking hard - not necessarily at the themselves, because the good guys often aren't even aware that some of this stuff happened - but what they need to be looking out for is standing up and saying, 'Hey, actually this isn't OK'."

Russell McVeagh had indicated it would share the findings of its external review with the Law Society, which could help inform its own work in this area, she said.

Wellington barrister Elizabeth Hall is currently doing a nation-wide survey to investigate bullying and harassment among lawyers.

She did not want to skew any responses that were still coming in by talking about them, but conceded the feedback had been strong.

There was a massive power imbalance between senior lawyers and young law students and clerks trying to get a foot in the door, she said.

"It's not OK I don't think to say these are young people, they're adults and they make their own decisions.

"That's a really surface approach to looking at something like this. If it was a university, and it was a 19-year-old student having sex with a lecturer in a lecture theatre, that wouldn't be OK and that wouldn't be the reaction that I think you would find."

One reason why it had taken so long in some cases for the stories to come out was that people feared being judged or blamed or making themselves unemployable, she said.

A leading employment lawyer, Peter Cullen, said law firms, like all employers, needed to have policies and codes of behaviour around sexual conduct, harassment, and alcohol, and they needed to enforce them.

"You never get perfection but I would hope that many law firms would learn from what's happened here and ensure that they have good standards, and basically that they just treat people with respect."

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